Semiconductor Industry Outlook (Dec. 2010)

The Semiconductor Industry serves as a driver, enabler and indicator of technological progress. Developments in the industry determine the way we work, transport ourselves, communicate, entertain ourselves and respond to our environment. The PCs we work on, the cars we drive, the phones we communicate with, the electronic gadgets on which we watch movies, listen to music and play games on, and the planes and weapons used to transport or protect us use semiconductor devices.

As environmental issues have become more of a concern today, semiconductor devices are being made to reduce power consumption, reduce heat dissipation, capture solar energy, create more efficient lighting solutions, and so forth.

The past decade has seen big changes in the industry, with most players streamlining operations and transferring more routine production to low-cost locations. This led to the development of the Asian market, where most memory production and backend operations have shifted.

2009 Was Better Than Expected

The industry performed much better in 2009 than was originally anticipated. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), worldwide sales of semiconductors were $226.3 billion in 2009, significantly better than the $219.7 billion forecasted for the year. This was a 9% decline from 2008.

The SIA estimates that around 52% of revenue came from the Asia/Pacific region (excluding Japan), followed by Japan and the Americas with a 17% share each and the balance from Europe. The sales by geography were similar to 2008, indicating that the recession, which started in late 2008, did not result in any major change in market dynamics.

The SIA attributed the better-than-expected performance to much superior inventory management than in the prior downturn, as manufacturers cut production drastically instead of running the fabs at full capacity to maintain margins. New product launches and strength in the consumer and computing markets toward the end of the year also contributed.

Looking Back at 2010

This year started with a bang, as most companies reported results that were significantly better than the prior year, exceeding the companies’ own expectations and blowing past consensus estimates.

However, most of the excitement started wearing thin by the middle of the year, as order patterns and customer inventories indicated slowing demand. Industry watchers contended that the strength in the first half was more on account of pent-up demand than the beginning of another growth phase.

With the third quarter results, it was apparent that fears of a jobless recovery persisted. As a result, consumer spending failed to pick up in line with normal seasonality and holiday buildups dropped below expectations.

Semiconductor companies are now even more conservative, both in terms of internal inventories and revenue projections. Therefore, while we do not expect significant positive surprises over the next few months, we believe that negative surprises will be limited, if at all.

The Semiconductor Industry Association expects semiconductor sales to increase 32.8% in 2010, 6.0% in 2011 and 3.4% in 2012, or a compounded annual growth rate of 13.4% for the period 2009 to 2012. The significant increase in 2010 is on account of weak sales in 2009, which made comparisons easier.

Computing and Consumer Markets Biggest Drivers

These two end markets together consume around 60% of total semiconductors sold. Therefore, they have the ability to significantly influence total sector performance.

Computing

A number of factors, in combination, are bringing about a complete turnaround in the computing market. Gone are the days when component suppliers were limited by a maturing market, worsened by commoditization and corresponding pricing pressures.

Today, the computing business is being driven by Microsoft Corp’s (MSFT) Windows 7 for one. Even with operating systems, such as Apple Inc’s (AAPL) Macintosh platform gaining popularity, and cloud alternatives such as Google Inc.’s (GOOG) Chrome coming to market, Windows 7 adoption rates have been very high.

Second, Apple’s run of success is a big driver, since the Macintosh OS runs on Apple devices alone, which means more hardware and consequently, more semiconductor devices being sold. Third, with the advent of less sophisticated and ultra mobile devices (netbooks and tablets), the market continues to expand. Fourth, increased computerization in emerging markets, such as China, India, Brazil and Russia are also helping growth.

Perhaps the biggest driver of business is the growth in the data center segment, which has increased focus on servers, storage and networking equipment that consume semiconductors of the high-end variety. The cost advantages of moving to the cloud are encouraging many small and medium-sized businesses, as well as some large organizations to transfer either a part or the whole of their operations to the cloud. We expect this change to be a major driver of growth for the industry.

Consumer Electronics

With ultra-portable computing devices gaining popularity, the distinction between consumer and computing is blurring in some cases. Of course, the consumer electronics market also includes other gadgets such as LCD TVs, Blu-ray players and smartphones.

The problem with this segment being a major driver of revenue is its inherently low margins. Competition is fierce and aggressive pricing is the rule of the day. Since semiconductors made for consumer goods are in the nature of components, there is ever-increasing pressure on their prices that correspondingly squeeze margins.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the 7.8% revenue decline of consumer electronic goods in 2009 was entirely on account of weaker pricing, as unit volumes of consumer goods increased around 10%.

Consumer confidence in the economy touched bottom early in the third quarter of 2010, improving steadily thereafter. However, the recovery is slow and very gradual, resulting in a muted 2010 holiday season. An offsetting factor noticed by the CEA is individual buying habits this holiday season that are increasingly favoring electronic gadgets, with 3 of the top 5 and 4 of the top 10 most-wished-for items being electronic goods.

The CEA has not refreshed full-year expectations and remains optimistic about slight growth in 2010 to $165 billion. The primary driver will be smartphones, which are expected to generate $17 billion in shipment revenue and 52 million in units. Notebooks will be the second largest driver, with shipment revenue of $14 billion and units of 30 million.

Blu-ray player units, which increased 155% in 2009, are expected to grow to more than 7 million units and generate $1.4 billion in shipment revenue. And finally TVs, which grew significantly in 2009, are expected to grow again in 2010 to 37 million units, driven by high definition, FPD and other advanced technologies. However, shipment revenue is expected to decline to $22 billion due to weaker pricing.

Other Markets

Communications infrastructure spending is currently being driven by China and India. The SIA expects infrastructure spending in these geographies to remain the major driver of semiconductor sales. The domestic market will be driven by increasing data volumes. Medical Devices is an upcoming area and some chipmakers have started developing products targeted at this market as well.

Gartner estimates that the automotive semiconductor market will grow 23.5% in 2010 to $19.334 billion, as automotive inventory corrections are no longer troubling sales and growth rates appear to be steady. Infineon technologies, NEC Electronics and Freescale Semiconductor are the major beneficiaries here.

However, we may see some changes in days to come, since nearly a fifth of vehicle production has moved to China and we may expect more to follow. Moreover, semiconductor manufacturers serving this market have a few advantages. The most important is the growing electronic content per vehicle, driven by the need for fuel efficiency, entertainment and automated navigation.

As a result, semiconductors serving this market should grow stronger than the industry over the next few years. The fact that an automobile model has a significantly longer life than a consumer device model is an added bonus, as once a semiconductor has been designed in, it continues to generate revenue for a number of years.

The aerospace and defense markets are considerably dependent on government spending and policy making. The commercial aerospace market (which lags an economic downturn or recovery) may be expected to start looking up, given the increasing passenger and cargo traffic. The outlook for defense spending on the other hand is not as bright.

Moreover, the focus on terrorist activity remains, so spending on intelligence systems and basic weaponry is stronger. A longer-term driver for semiconductor manufacturers is the growing importance of electronic weaponry. So semiconductor manufacturers serving these markets are seeing mixed results, depending on the customers served.

Given the end markets driving the current strength in the industry, we believe that manufacturers of DRAM and flash (particularly NAND and also NOR) will continue to see strong demand. The transition from DDR2 to DDR3 will add to growth in this segment.

Ever Smaller & More Powerful

The demand for greater functionality in smaller and more power efficient gadgets is leading to greater integration within the semiconductor device. This is leading to increased demand for the system-on-a-chip (SoC), which is a single device incorporating a microprocessor, digital signal processor or graphics core, as well as memory and logic.

Within SoCs, both application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and application specific standard products are expected to do well. ASICs are usually customized for a single buyer, while ASSPs may have multiple buyers.

Major Players

The major players in the industry may be categorized into chipmakers (OEMs-whether fabless or otherwise), equipment and material suppliers, and foundries.

According to Gartner Dataquest and iSuppli Corp, Intel Corp (INTC), Samsung and Toshiba Corp were the top three semiconductor suppliers in 2009. Texas Instruments (TXN) remained in the fourth position, as the company continued to phase off its wireless baseband business.

STMicroelectronics (STM) was in fifth position, followed by Qualcomm (QCOM), which rose from the eighth position in 2008. Hynix also gained, moving from the ninth position in 2008 to the seventh position in 2009. Japan’s Renesas slipped a couple of places to number eight. Applied Micro Devices (AMD) re-entered the top ten at number nine, followed by Sony (SNE), which slipped a few places to end at number ten.

VLSI Research estimates that semiconductor equipment sales by the top ten suppliers declined 38.2% in 2009, following a 26% decline in 2008. Therefore, the segment has shrunk by over 50% over the past two years. North American suppliers declined 36.9%, Japanese suppliers declined 35.6%, while European suppliers declined 44.5%.

However, despite the difficulties related to the recession and the new trend of equipping fabs with used materials, Applied Materials (AMAT) easily maintained its number one position in 2009. Tokyo Electron Ltd moved from the third to the second position, exchanging places with ASML Holdings N.V. (ASML). Nikon Corporation was at number four, followed by KLA-Tencor (KLAC) and Lam Research Corp (LRCX). The other players in the top ten included Dainippon, ASM International N.V. (ASMI), Novellus Systems, Inc. (NVLS) and Teradyne, Inc. (TER) in that order.

The Foundry segment has undergone a major change in 2009 according to research from IC Insights. Although Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSM) remains the leader by far, followed by Taiwan-based United Microelectronics Corp (UMC) and Singapore-based Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing (CHRT), the fourth position has gone to U.S.-based GlobalFoundries, which commenced business in March last year. Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMI) of China was pushed to the fifth position.

OPPORTUNITIES

Manufacturing digital ICs is expensive, as it requires state-of-the-art technology and processes. On the other hand, digital products are cheaper, so cost recovery is more difficult. This has led to specialization in the industry and a greater contribution from Asian manufacturers. However, a significant portion of the intellectual property remains with the domestic companies.

One of the primary beneficiaries of the growth in mobile phones, tablets and the like is ARM Holdings (ARMH), with its power-efficient low-performance chip architecture that dominates the growing mobile phone and tablet markets. Others would be Qualcomm (QCOM), Samsung and Texas Instruments (TXN). As such, we remain upbeat about these companies in 2011.

The ongoing strength in these markets has also spurred growth at foundries which actually performed much better than expected in 2010 and can look forward to a good 2011 as well. As a result, we have turned bullish on the sector, encouraging investors to accumulate shares of Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM), United Microelectronics Corp (UMC) and Semiconductor Manufacturing International (SMI).

We are also increasingly optimistic about Intel and AMD, given their focus on the data center segment. Although we are a wee bit cautious on Intel’s other growth initiatives and are unsure about where it wants to go with the two big acquisitions announced this year, the company’s market position, cash balance, technology lead and management strategy and execution are positives in our opinion.

AMD is also worth watching, as management has been delivering on its promises. Moreover, the company has been rationalizing its debt, increasing focus on R&D and operating a lower-cost model, in short, doing all the right things.

The analog and mixed-signal market is dependent on innovation. Consequently, these products generate higher margins than digital products. They are also more customized and have longer life cycles. These advantages are not lost on U.S. players, so the number of companies entering the market is on the rise.

Our favorites in this area include Texas Instruments, Linear Technology (LLTC), Analog Devices (ADI), Semtech Corp (SMTC), Intersil Corp (ISIL) and Maxim Integrated Products (MXIM). Although some of these companies would no doubt perform better than others, they are, for the most part, highly diversified, high-margin businesses. We believe these companies will generate moderate growth in 2011, representing good defensive plays.

WEAKNESSES

We believe that the good fortune enjoyed by equipment suppliers in 2010 will not continue in 2011. All the companies here had been severely impacted by the recession, as foundries, memory and logic makers decided to cut capex.

Both Gartner and SEMI projected triple-digit growth in semiconductor capex spending this year and most companies are tracking in line with that forecast. However, order patterns across the segment are indicative of a slowdown in 2011, as forecasted by Gartner and SEMI. Consequently, we have now turned a bit cautious about companies like Applied Materials (AMAT), KLA-Tencor Corp (KLAC) and Novellus Systems (NVLS) that were very hot six months ago.

We do not anticipate significant growth in the semiconductor sector in 2011, although we do not really see any great weaknesses either. However, we would caution investors about companies with relatively weak financials, such as Exar Corp (EXAR) and FormFactor (FORM). For instance, FORM continues to burn cash despite strong demand for its specialized probe cards. It also has significant customer and market concentration that increase execution risks.

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